The Curse of 16-2
There is a reason why bookies are freaked out by handicapping the CFL. It’s the only professional league where a record-setting team could go into a playoff game favoured by 10 points and lose by 21, a flip of 31 points.
As everyone knows the Argos are only the second team in the history of the league to win 16 regular season games. The first was Edmonton in 1989. What did these teams have in common? Neither of them advanced to the Grey Cup. In 1989, Edmonton quarterback, Tracy Ham, was in his third season and won the most outstanding player award, at the age of 26. This coming week, Chad Kelly is favoured to win the most outstanding player award at the age of 29. The biggest difference in these two stories is that Chad Kelly is, despite his advanced age, effectively a rookie. After a record-setting season he did a face plant on Saturday coughing up four interceptions and one fumble en route to a whopping nine turnovers by the Argos offence.
In my column last week, I said that the only way the Argos could lose is if they laid an egg by either being out coached and/or turning the ball over prodigiously. Remarkably, they turned the ball over more times than they had throughout any cumulative four game stretch this season.
What happened to Kelly? Who knows?
It was hard not to notice that following Shawn Lemon’s strip sack in the second half that the TSN crew followed Lemon to the bench and caught him saying, “I caught him sleeping”. Whether this was in reference to Kelly or some other player only Lemon and his teammates know for sure. Nevertheless, it might be a very apt description of the way Kelly was playing Saturday. He appeared to be sleepwalking.
Kelly looked like a deer in the headlights. Impressively, he hadn’t yet shown any evidence of stage fright in his first two years with the Argonauts. Wow, I did not see this coming. Every quarterback has a bad day and Kelly was due. It arrived emphatically!
Meanwhile, the Argonaut defence played an outstanding game out-sacking the Alouettes seven to none.
By any measure, the Argonauts had an outstanding regular season, and while Kelly had a game to forget, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They now have a great foundation from which to build a bigger fan following. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this choke was the lost opportunity to entertain their largest home crowd in years. Quite simply the Argos offence laid an egg at the worst possible time.
Looking into the future, perhaps management should consider bringing in an experienced back up quarterback, who can play the role of player-coach. It was hard not to notice that in his season ending comments, Bo Levi Mitchell mentioned that he would be interested in staying on with the Ticats in some capacity. That sounds to me like someone who may be open to a non-playing role.
There is no way the Ticats will bring Bo Levi Mitchell back to be their starting quarterback next season. It’s possible they may not bring him back at all. Alternatively, he might make a good player coach and mentor for Kelly in a back up role. Certainly he knows Ryan Dinwiddie well and they have enjoyed success together. One thing is for sure, the Argonauts would benefit from better depth behind their starting quarterback, there is no guarantee that they will lead the league in fewest sacks allowed in consecutive seasons. The Argonauts have the most depth on their roster of any team in the league, except at the quarterback position. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had an MBT come off the bench in the Eastern final? Chad Kelly will have much higher expectations to meet in 2024.
As for the Montreal Alouettes, they have exceeded everyone’s expectations perhaps even their own. It was interesting that a TSN announcer mentioned a conversation he had with Cody Fajardo at the beginning of the season. Had Fajardo not signed with the Alouettes he likely would’ve signed with the Argonauts and competed with Kelly for the starting quarterback position. Both Kelly and Fajardo must be delighted that Fajardo signed in Montreal. It’s worked out extremely well for both of them.
Meanwhile, the management of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders must be swallowing hard, knowing that Fajardo, discarded by the Riders for being sacked a record 70 times has a realistic chance of taking his new team to a Grey cup championship .
Sometimes nice guys can finish first.
Fajardo did what he needed to do for the Alouettes to win. He played within himself and did not turn the ball over, the very things that Chad Kelly needed to do to not lose the Eastern final.
Now Fajardo, robbed of a possible Grey Cup by his pass to an open receiver hitting a goal post in the 2019 Western final finally gets his chance. Ironically, the Rider offence he left is far more talented than the one he is leading in Montreal.
Speaking of goalposts, the NFL moved its to the back of the end zone following Super Bowl VII when Washington QB Billy Kilmer threw to a wide open receiver in the Miami end zone but his pass hit the goal post. The next play former BC Lion, Jake Scott intercepted his pass. Scott picked off Kilmer twice that day and helped the Dolphins complete their undefeated season. Scott was named Super Bowl MVP in a very close game. Scott had previously been a modest rookie receiver and kick returner with the Lions. He went on to a Pro Bowl career with both Miami and Washington at safety. In Super Bowl VIII he recovered two fumbles as the Dolphins won again. He retired holding Super Bowl records for INTs, fumble recoveries, and kick returns.
Will the CFL ever move the goal posts from the goal line to back line ? While it makes good sense from the safety perspective, don’t hold your breath. It’s possible that it would reduce scoring by making field goals a lot tougher. It would certainly make field position a lot more precious.
Similar to the Argonauts, the BC Lions best player in QB Vernon Adams struggled to move the ball and threw three interceptions. Unlike Kelly, however, Adams needed to be BC‘s best player for the Lions to win. Kelly, on the other hand just needed to protect the ball. Adams realistically had to beat the Bombers by being the best player on the field. A tall order to be sure against the league’s most experienced defense. For all intents and purposes, the Lions lost the Western Final when they lost to Winnipeg a month ago at home in a game they had within their grasp but for a mental error on their last play. This cost them a home game in the western final, and likely a berth in the Grey Cup.
The Grey Cup
I doubt very much, that the Blue Bombers will be nearly as generous as the Argonauts next week in Hamilton. They will not beat themselves and will likely defeat the Alouettes. Nevertheless, hats off to the Alouettes and their coaching staff for turning water into wine this season.
Short term gain for long term pain
Now that the Argonauts have been replaced by Montreal in the championship game the television ratings will be interesting to watch. Last year the game drew 3.1 million viewers largely due to the Argonauts presence in the game as they represent the largest metropolitan area in the country by far. The largest viewership for a Grey Cup occurred in 2009 when 6.1 million people on TSN at RDS tuned in to watch the Alouettes. This consisted of 5 million English viewers on TSN and 1 million viewers on RDS the French language partner of TSN. The smallest Grey Cup audience in recent history was in 2021 when only 2.8 million English language viewers tuned in, roughly half what it was a decade previous.
The Argo’s drew almost 5 million in 2012, when they won the Grey cup in front of a full house at Skydome. It was also the same year that the Vanier Cup was played in Toronto with the viewership of 910,000 on TSN, a record number of viewers for a Vanier Cup.
As I have referenced before in my columns, the attrition in viewership is partly attributable to cable cutting of up to 10% of the audience for TSN on a year over year basis. The CFL made the decision to go with a sole source provider more than a decade
ago, and it is no longer accessible on free over the air networks like TSN‘s partner, CTV, in the same way as the Super Bowl can be watched. It’s had the effect of a blackout of the game for the majority of the Canadian population with television sets. It’s one of the reasons why the Super Bowl viewership now dwarfs the Grey Cup in audience size in Canada. I expect that the Grey Cup will draw 3M viewers on TSN and RDS combined. Any other Eastern team and the numbers would certainly fall under 3 million on TSN/RDS. An audience of more than 3 million this year should be considered a resounding success by the CFL. A declining subscription base for TSN makes a continued decline in viewership inevitable.
As predicted here, Western won the Yates Cup handily over Laurier this past Saturday. They now face off against U Montreal for a berth in the Vanier Cup. This game is a pick ‘em. Western has had a lot of injuries so I may have to give the edge to Montreal.
UBC won the Hardy cup on the last play over Alberta and will now play St Francis Xavier. UBC will win this game handily. It may turn out to be a blow out. The Atlantic conference has not been competitive for decades. If SFX keeps UBC under 40 points it should be considered a moral victory. Perhaps SFU, York and the Varsity Blues should apply for membership in the AUS. Their level of university funding support makes them peers with the modestly sized AUS schools.
If you have ever wondered what the difference between Usports and the NCAA is look no further than the soap opera playing out in East Lansing, Michigan this past month. The new Michigan President is Santa Ono. Ono, just came over from the Presidency of UBC where his only involvement with the T-Bird football program may have been in the acceptance of donor money or the choice not to accept donations, from controversial donors such as David Sidoo. At UBC Santa Ono made $450,000 Canadian in annual salary. The T Bird football coach, Blake Nill, makes roughly half of that. Now that Ono has moved over to the University of Michigan his salary has jumped to $1 million US while the football coach, Jim Harbaugh, makes $8 million USD a year or roughly 35 times the salary of one of the highest paid Canadian university football coaches.
Recently, Harbaugh was found guilty of several NCAA recruiting violations and has been suspended for three games. Nevertheless, in his capacity as Big Blue cheerleader, Ono has taken to x/Twitter to defend him.
This included this dandy piece of creative writing…
"Countless members of the University of Michigan family have reached out to me over the weekend and I wanted to express my appreciation. Like any community, we face our share of challenges and adversity. There have been many such moments in our history. But as our team showed so clearly yesterday, we will respond to any challenge head on with a conviction to do better and to emerge even stronger. Go Blue!"
When it comes to spinning a narrative the President of SFU hasn’t got anything on Santa Ono. Perhaps it’s a BC talent.
Meanwhile down in the heart of Texas, Johnny Manziel’s alma mater, A&M, fired its Head coach, Jimbo Fisher, but not for any NCAA ethical transgressions. He simply was not winning enough. He will receive upwards of $77 million in severance payout. Nice work if you can get it!
I’ll leave it to you to decide who has their priorities straight.